After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in Biomechanics, Michelle Dean worked in automotive engineering, then landed an entry-level position in the motion capture department at George Lucas’s company, Industrial Light & Magic. She has since worked for nearly two decades as a digital artist on some of the biggest Hollywood movies. Her credits include work on Gravity, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Arthur Christmas, Jurassic Park III, and War of the Worlds. She currently works as a Digital Artist for Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco.
DVD.com: First off, what is a digital artist?
Michelle Dean: It's an umbrella term for a visual effects (vfx) artist who works on a computer. As vfx crews have gotten larger, they often lump everyone together rather than specify each discipline.
DVD: Some definitions would be helpful. What is CGI and how is it different from F/X or special effects? What are some other definitions I should know about?
MD: CGI stands for computer-generated imagery, although insiders drop the I, and refer to it as CG. Special effects are done in camera (i.e. real explosions or monster makeup), whereas visual effects, including CGI, are done in post-production. [Ed. note: Post production refers to work done on a film after the initial filming is complete. This is the time when sound, special visual effects, etc., are added)
DVD: In your field, there seem to be so many job titles. When I watch the credits on a film, I see lots and lots of people. What are some of the various jobs (and their titles) and what do they do that is unique from other people with similar jobs?
MD: It turns out that creating reality is actually pretty difficult and requires a lot of highly skilled workers. Some of the job categories include layout (camera), modeling (sculptor), texture (painter), environments (landscapes), character setup (bones and skin), character simulation (cloth, hair, flesh), effects (fire, smoke, water), animation (puppeteering/performance), lighting (lighting, shading, rendering), and compositing (green screen, color correction, final layers).
DVD: I noticed some of your earlier credits list you as a “Creature Developer.” Now THAT sounds like a cool job. What is it, and how is it part of the overall work on a film?
MD: It was a title we had earlier at ILM, that has since been renamed Creature Technical Director...which includes character setup, character simulation, destruction, and crowd simulation.
I don’t create creatures, I just set them up and make them look good in shots. By “set up” I mean put a skeleton structure in them for animators to use, get their cloth and skin moving correctly, and then set up the dynamic properties of the cloth, skin, flesh to run after the animation is approved.
DVD: Explain a bit about "destruction" and "crowd simulation" What do you do in this area?
MD: Destruction entails anything that blows up: buildings, spaceships, cars, etc. It’s done using a rigid body dynamics system. I don’t typically do a lot of destruction, but people in my department do.
Crowd simulation is the process of simulating the movement (or dynamics) of a large number of entities or characters. I recently used it to simulate a field of bamboo reacting to a stampede of creatures running through it.
DVD: How much input do you get as an artist into your job? (In other words, can you tell your boss, ‘This is how I think this should look’, etc.)
MD: It depends on your relationship with your supervisor. Some of them have very clear opinions, while others give you more room to figure it out. Our input happens at more of a granular level, for example I might choose the type of wind that blows in a character’s hair.
DVD: Ok, we have to ask. What are the kinds of wind that blow in character's hair?
MD: We use a variety of fields that use different mathematical models for the wind. You can change the speed, frequency, noise, direction, scale, etc. I suppose there as as many kinds of winds in CG as there are in nature. We do our best to approximate it, but real wind is quite mathematically complicated.
DVD: One of my favorite credits you have is on Arthur Christmas where your credit is listed as “Cloth and Hair.” Tell us about what that means.
MD: I'm so glad you liked that film! I enjoyed working on it and have been a fan of Aardman films for years. I was responsible for physics-based simulations of the cloth and hair, i.e., the way cloth wrinkles and the way hair blows in the wind.
[DVD.com note: Aardman Films is a British animation studio known for its stop-motion clay animation techniques. They are best known for their Wallace and Gromit characters. One of my favorite Aardman movies is Chicken Run (2000).]
DVD: What were some of your favorite films to work on?
MD: There's the experience of working on the film, and then there's work that I'm the most proud of. I go with the work I'm most proud of: Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), the Russian spacesuit in Gravity (2013), and Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006).
It also really depends on your crew. Each crew is like its own company, and the working dynamics can change completely from movie to movie.
DVD: A lot of people say the work your team did on Grand Moff Tarkin was revolutionary in Rogue One. Tell us a little bit about that work.
MD: Digital humans are sort of the holy grail of CG. Because humans are really skilled at reading faces, it's something that is just inherently hard to pull off. I was one of a team of people working on Tarkin, and it's hard to distill what went into it. There was facial motion capture, and animation, and microexpression sculpting, and flesh sim, and blood flow, and wrinkle displacement, I could go and on.
Here's something that might give you a better sense of what went into it.
DVD: On the Star Wars theme, what is it like to work on film like that that has such a deeply loyal and devoted fan base, and who scrutinize your work so carefully?
MD: You get used to the scrutiny. I certainly don't take it personally. Especially since I'm one of many who contribute to the end product. I also don't spend too much reading the comments. You just have to do your best and hope that it pays off. And if not, there's always another movie to work on.
DVD: Is all your work done on computers or is some of it done by hand? What type of computer systems do you use?
MD: All computers, all of the time. We currently use Linux-based systems.
DVD: How did you end up in your career?
MD: I studied Biomechanics (math and physics applied to the body), but had always done creative things—drawing, sculpting, painting, etc. Pursuing engineering was an attempt to be practical, but I was becoming more and more interested in filmmaking. After a brief stint as an engineer in an auto factory, I moved out to San Francisco and started looking for jobs in film (why not LA? Long story).
This was in 1998, only five years after Jurassic Park, and CG was still a relatively new thing.
After asking around at various production houses, someone mentioned I should check out ILM. I looked for months on their website and didn't see any positions I was qualified for, until an entry level position in the Motion Capture department opened up. I had volunteered in a Biomechanics lab in college that happened to use the same technology as the motion capture department at ILM. It felt like a lucky break. After a year in mocap, I learned the creature side of things and eventually moved departments.
DVD: What do you like about your job?
MD: I get to work with incredibly brilliant and talented people. It's also exciting to work on something that so many people get to experience. I really like working in the Presidio of San Francisco, with its trees and wild parrots and moody fog patterns. The gym at work has the best views.
DVD: What don't you like about your job?
MD: The long hours. The lack of direct sunlight. Computers.
DVD: The issue of long hours and the toll it takes on your personal life is one I am intimately familiar with from my years as a television writer. On the one hand, the work you’re engaged in—in my case writing TV comedy and your case being a digital artist—is so engaging and is the kind of work you dream of doing. It’s what you always wanted to do. And yet on the other hand, the hours are so long and your life becomes so unbalanced toward work and away from home and the rest of life that it can take a terrible toll. And you end up questioning whether it is worth it. It sounds odd to complain about, but it is a real issue, isn’t it?
MD: The entertainment industry really isn't an easy one, is it? Work/life balance has been a thing I'm really passionate about for years, and I try to set boundaries, but I still find myself giving into the perpetual state of emergency that is making movies. I'm not sure how we change it. Maybe it's inherent in the creative process, who knows.